Author: Gary McCarty

Use of Subjunctive Mood in Verbs

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Now here’s a misusage that almost no ear, nor eye, will ever catch. 

What’s wrong with this lyric:

“If I was a rich man…”?

If this clause reads and sounds okay to you, then you’re definitely among the majority of English users who don’t know, don’t understand or otherwise just ignore the subjunctive mood.

Briefly, the to be verb takes the subjective form were when used in if constructions expressing a wish or condition.  For instance:

“If I were in New York today, I could visit my friend Daniel.”

You’re not in New York, so the if expresses a wish or condition and thus requires the subjunctive mood in the verb, which is plural rather than singular.

If I was just learning English, I’d be confused, but if I were born here, I might still be confused.  (Find the error–or irony–in there yet?)

Categories: Grammar Sucks

Word Confusion: Gleam and Glean


I was dashing off an e-mail just now, and I used the word gleam in the sense of examining some documents and deriving meaning.

Something struck me as odd about the word.  It turns out that I really meant glean. It’s a good thing I turned instantly to my cyber-buddy to verify my spelling and usage, and sure enough: Gleam: a flash or beam of light. Glean: to gather slowly and laboriously, bit by bit. Of course, these are only the first definitions for each, but as you can see, I had chosen the wrong word entirely. 

Lesson here, even for an old writer hack like me: When in doubt, look it up.

Categories: Grammar Sucks

Day the Rivers Run Green

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At least they do in [tag]Chicago[/tag] where [tag]St. Patrick’s Day[/tag] is celebrated in the proper way.

St. Patrick, of course, was actually a Scotsman who was enslaved by the Irish, escaped, converted to Catholicism, and came back to wreak his revenge on those pagans (my ancestors).

Anyway, his death and sainthood definitely led to something good, which is what we can enjoy every March 17.  Doubly nice, this year St. Patty’s Day falls on a Saturday, so there’s no excuse for not being at the pubs at opening gong.  Enjoy!

Categories: Grammar Sucks

A Life Isn’t Worth a Full Sentence?

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While driving home on Thursday, I had the radio turned to ESPN.  The top-of-the-hour news concluded with this item:

“Former baseball commissioner [tag]Bowie Kuhn[/tag], passing away today at 80.”

Now, what gives here?  This isn’t even a full sentence, just a fragment.  I realize that fragments are broadcast journalism style, but doesn’t a person of note–or any person–deserve at least a full sentence; for instance, “Bowie Kuhn, former baseball commissioner, passed away today at 80”?  Or how about even two sentences:  “Bowie Kuhn, the former baseball commissioner from the 1960s and 1970s, passed away today at 80.  He was famous for overseeing the end of baseball’s infamous reserve clause and the introduction of free agency”?

How about a little dignity for the man?

(The same day baseball legend and notorious MLB outlaw [tag]Pete Rose[/tag] garnered several sentences and paragraphs on most media outlets for admitting that he had bet on all the games he managed in the 1980s.  Vice makes for bigger stories and bigger headlines, I guess.)

Categories: Grammar Sucks

Amid Other Postings, Amid Stands Out

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I have a professional colleague who is an Iranian immigrant and who taught himself English as he attended UCLA for a few degrees.  He’s now a scientist who speaks accented but generally well-constructed and grammatical English.  Amid all these accomplishments, one word still drives him batty, and that word is amid.

As much as I try to explain to him that amid just means “in the middle of” or “surounded by,” he gets confused by all the political writers who seem to live and die by “amid” sentences.  “Amid pressure to resign…,” “Amid resistance by Iran…,” “Amid growing budget deficits….”  You know, fill in the blank and you’re on your way.

Funny but when I studied journalism, the main point was Joseph Pulitzer’s “Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.”  Now, one must say “Amid accuracy, amid accuracy, amid accuracy” to get hired as a political pundit.

Categories: Grammar Sucks

Are Jokes Really Funny?

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I recall on many an occasion sitting in an audience, or in front of a boob TV, and listening to a slew of jokes that weren’t the least bit funny.  I didn’t laugh, but virtually everyone else did.  I just figured I had a different sense of humor or too much intelligence–take your pick. Now comes scientific proof that laughing at [tag]jokes[/tag] is a means of gaining social acceptance, in fact a survival instinct mastered by four months of age. Say what? Read More

Categories: Grammar Sucks

Craic Me Up, Will You?

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In honor of this weekend’s [tag]St. Patrick’s Day[/tag] festivities, we should look at the derivation of the word the Irish use to describe the event: craic.  Craic is actually a Scottish or Ulster-Scottish word, but it applies.  It means “good time” or “celebration,” or sometimes just to talk a lot.

From craic, we get the modern English usages, “crack me up,” and “crack a joke.”

Some Irish sayings include:

It was great craic.
She’s great craic when she gets going.
He’s great craic when he has a few pints on him.
What’s the craic?
How’s the craic?
The craic was mighty.

Categories: Grammar Sucks

Charles Lamb on Retirement

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The Wall Street Journal has this weekend feature called “Masterpiece,” in which various English and other authors and their works are discussed.

This past weekend came up for discussion the essays and letters of Charles Lamb (1775-1834), whose primary sustenance came from being an accountant for the ur-global giant, The East India Company.  In his somewhat troubled and meager private life, he churned out memorable essays and letters.

Ah, the art of writing letters–where has that gone? Read More

Categories: Grammar Sucks

Comma-phobia or Comma-rhea?

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There are two types of people in life (English speakers anyway)–those who are comma-phobic and use too few commas when they write, and those who have comma-rhea and use commas everywhere.  Both are obviously wrong, and the [tag]proper use of commas[/tag] lies somewhere in between these extremes.

One of the problems here begins with the way English is taught in our K-12 schools.  I think the cast-in-stone comma standard taught in public schools goes something like this: "Whenever you want a pause, you use a comma."

Now, while a comma can indicate a pause, that’s certainly not its main function, and conversely, a pause is not always best served by a comma.  Dashes and parentheses also create nice pauses, to say nothing of periods and ends of paragraphs.

Stay tuned, and I’ll come up with an English Resources piece on commas in the near future.

Categories: Grammar Sucks

How the Brain Processes Language Intent

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People can say things that, given the circumstances, inflection, emphasis and body language, can be meant as straight or sarcastic.  If you’ve ever tried a [tag]sarcastic joke[/tag] in front of a group of people, however, you’ll notice that not everyone “gets it.”

Why is that?  Did we do something wrong?

Read More

Categories: Grammar Sucks